It wasn’t a touchdown bomb from senior Ricky Rahne that caused the Cornell sideline to erupt with ecstasy late during the second quarter of Saturday’s game against Lehigh. And it wasn’t a jarring tackle from fifth-year senior defensive back Phil Rigueur either.
What brought the Red’s coaches and players to their feet and breathed life back into Cornell’s upset hopes was a momentum-swing play from the special teams. With his team down 10-0, sophomore John Kellner burst Lehigh’s offensive line to stuff an attempted punt by Jay Heibel, grabbed the loose ball and returned it for a touchdown.
Just how special has special teams been for the Red so far this season? On Saturday alone it helped the Red to two touchdowns — Kellner’s score and a Jarad Madea fumble recovery after Cornell’s punt was mishandled by Josh Snyder which led to a TD catch by Kellner.
Burdened with a offense that’s still trying to figure out a way to kickstart the running game and a defense that’s still trying to learn to stop the run on a consistent basis, Cornell has been fortunate enough to be able to count on its special teams in its three games this year.
“Some coaches give lip service to special teams,” head coach Tim Pendergast said, “I don’t. How the special teams are going you can blame on me and they’re going quite well.”
Last year, Cornell’s special teams was in administrative disarray — so much so that then junior placekicker Peter Iverson doubled as the unit’s coach. This year Pendergast has made special teams his baby, and the results have shown.
“We spent a lot of time on special teams,” Pendergast said. “We get more and more comfortable with what we’re doing on special teams.”
Kellner’s and Madea’s plays haven’t been the special teams’ only contributions this year. Junior Vinny Bates and sophomore Chad Nice who function as the Red’s primary return men routinely provide Cornell with good field position.
And not to be forgotten are the contributions courtesy of Iverson’s and freshman punter Mike Baumgartel’s feet, which along with customary punts and kickoffs have netted three field goals and a successful onside kick that almost allowed the Red to pull of a last minute come-from-behind victory at Colgate two weekends ago.
Against the Mountain Hawks, Cornell’s critical plays on special teams came at the most opportune times. Kellner’s punt block and ensuing touchdown brought the Red within three points (10-7) and the sent the team into half time with a crest of momentum, while Madea’s fumble recovery gave Cornell a 21-17 lead in the third quarter.
“I think [those plays] were extremely big,” Pendergast said. “Those can be difference makers in a ball game.”
Archived article by Shiva Nagaraj